Policymakers around the world are considering how to tackle the spread of misinformation and the problems it causes, particularly at election times. Looking at the European Commission’s plan to fight disinformation in advance of European Parliament elections in May, Julia Rone argues that its focus on disinformation is too narrow. Her research on radical right media has been conducted within the framework of visiting fellowships at the Centre for Advanced Internet Studies (CAIS) in Bochum and the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society in Berlin.
In light of the upcoming European Parliament elections, the European Commission published its Action Plan against Disinformation last month, aimed at protecting EU’s “democratic systems and public debates”. Following the 2015 European Council Decision to “challenge Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns” and the 2016 Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats, the Action Plan targets foreign agents suspected of increasingly “deploying disinformation strategies to influence societal debates, create divisions and interfere in democratic decision-making”. Yet a careful empirical analysis of many of the so called “disinformation” or “fake news” media reveals that disinformation is only one, and a rather minor, aspect of a much more comprehensive recent development – the rise of the European radical right and its media as an organized political movement.
To begin with, even though it is clear that EU officials are alarmed, the effect of “disinformation” per se on voting choices is still to be explored: existing studies focus mainly on the U.S. context and are not yet conclusive. What is more, false news websites, at least in Europe, have much smaller reach and levels of engagement than established news media. In light of this, recent claims by top EU officials that “Europe is under attack” and that the Brexit Referendum result was the product of “fake news” revive Cold War rhetoric rather too hastily and explain away complicated political developments with foreign manipulations.
The biggest problem with the Action Plan lies in its excessive focus on disinformation, defined as “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm. Public harm includes threats to democratic processes as well as to public goods such as Union citizens’ health, environment or security. Disinformation does not include inadvertent errors, satire and parody, or clearly identified partisan news and commentary”.
When applied accurately to comprise only false or misleading information, this definition is too narrow and excludes the most interesting cases of radical right political propaganda. But when applied inaccurately, the definition risks becoming too politicized and partial. In the end, how can anyone (be they expert fact-checkers or official institutions) define what constitutes a threat “to democratic processes and public goods” without first having a democratic discussion on the issue? In 2018, three Dutch news outlets took the EU to court because they received no previous notice and had no way to appeal when their articles were inaccurately exposed as fake news on the EU Vs Disinfo website.
Of course, there have been multiple and repeated cases of disinformation and fake news that have strongly influenced public debates. Recent publications by radical right websites claiming that the UN Migration Pact is legally binding, for example, are a case in point. But while media such as Epoch Times and Journalistenwatch in Germany or Il Primato Nazionale in Italy have been blacklisted by fact checkers and mainstream journalists as “unserious”, “so-so” or “false” news producers, “pseudo-journalism/politics”, etc., the main problem with such sites is not so much inaccuracy, but rather extreme bias towards the radical right and its core issues.
In my ongoing research project on the sources and topics of ten radical right media outlets (the transnationally-oriented Voice of Europe, the German Epoch Times, Journalistenwatch, Politically Incorrect News, the Italian Il Primato Nazionale, Secolo d’Italia and VoxNews.info, and the British Westmonster, Order-Order and PoliticalUK) I have found less empirical evidence than expected to support the mainstream narrative of “fake news” and “disinformation” often associated with them.
For example, when they publish news, radical right media, in most cases, point to their sources. The majority of articles of Epoch Times in Germany are taken from the German Press Agency (DPA). Both the transnationally-oriented Voice of Europe and German radical right media tend to pick up crime stories from local media and amplify them. For instance, the Journalistenwatch section Angela’s Tagesbuch (Angela’s Diary) collects the crimes of the day in an “alternative press review” and draws on press releases of the German police from Presseportal.de, a daughter site of the German Press Agency, or local newspapers as sources.
Reliance on local press allows radical right media to find crime stories that usually do not make it into the mainstream national media. The stories, especially when they are about crimes perpetrated by migrants, clearly serve the political agenda of radical right media and, consequently, receive disproportionately high coverage on their webpages. What is more, they are often re-framed in emotionally-charged, scandalous click-bite language, different from that found in the original source.
Revealing important cultural differences, British “alternative” media of the radical right tend to use tweets of political figures as sources much more often than their continental media counterparts. Italian radical right media are the least strict in pointing to sources – Vox News.info rarely points to sources but instead uses an idiosyncratic and non-transparent fact-checking tool of its own. Il Primato Nazionale (connected to the neo-fascist organization Casa Pound) also rarely points to sources in its original materials, written and signed by its own journalists.
Finally, radical right media occasionally share each other’s news across national borders to produce a greater output of content despite budget constraints. Thus, the transnationally-oriented Voice of Europe and the UK Politicalite often republish each other’s stories.
With respect to both sources and to topics, there are important differences between radical right media even within the same country. Epoch Times in Germany, for instance, covers a wider variety of topics (including extensive critique of Chinese government policies) in comparison with Politically Incorrect News and Journalistenwatch that are explicitly pro-AfD (the radical right party that entered the German parliament in 2017) and focus on a small set of topics, dominated by migration and crime. In Italy, Il Primato Nazionale and Secolo d’Italia focus on migration, the state of public finances, and critique of the left and often feature articles on historic “patriotic” figures. All radical right sites in Britain focus strongly on Brexit, a topic that rarely appears in the Italian and German radical right media.
To sum up, it is not so much the sharing of “fake” (false) news that defines radical right media online, but rather the fact that firstly, with few exceptions, they select and focus on a very narrow set of topics, and secondly, they frame these topics in strongly biased ways. Thus, classical media theories on agenda setting, selection and framing bias are more helpful in understanding the rise of “alternative” radical right websites than techno-deterministic dystopias of foreign disinformation.
Many of these radical right media have co-opted traditional civil society practices and support petitions (most recently, against the UN Migration Pact), organize crowd-funding and promote protest events. In short, these media serve as organizational tools of the radical right.
Why is all this important? Because what we are witnessing is the rise of the radical right and its media as an organized transnational political movement. Numerous people in different European countries are dissatisfied with high income inequality, concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and stagnating life chances, while at the same time their cultural fears have been stirred up.
Attempts by official institutions to explain these grievances using “disinformation” alone are not only resented by radical right media audiences, but also prevent us from understanding the essence of the phenomenon at hand. The appeal of radical right media is political and can be more adequately addressed by thinking of political and economic alternatives, and not by only focusing on increasing “media literacy” and taking down “fake news” from platforms, crucial though these measures are.
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.